Bruce Heard is a name I will forever associate with classic D&D content, but for the uninitiated I have just one word, Mystara! Of course it wasn’t always called Mystara, once upon a time it was just the Known World, the starting setting and the greater world hinted at in the Dungeons & Dragons boxed sets with which I learned how to role-play.
That world came alive for me with the Gazetteer series. I remember when I got my hands on the first one, The Grand Duchy of Karameikos. It showed me what a D&D setting could be, it was at once familiar and surprising. I learned the word gazetteer that day. Of course the book that really blew my socks of was the Principalities of Glantri, the land rules by magicians cemented what this world was like in my mind and made me a long life fan. Back then I didn’t really know much about who wrote what but I remember looking at the cover and wondering just who this guy Bruce Heard was…
Imagine my surprise when I got to talk to him online not too long ago! After all these years I actually was exchanging messages with someone who was instrumental in my formation as a role-player and game master. Isn’t social media grand! Of course one of the first things I did was pester him about and interview and he was so kind as to answer the long list of questions I sent him. So now without further ado, here is my interview with Mr. Bruce Heard…
Sunglar: How did you get into role-playing games?
Bruce Heard: I started out with war games. I’d moved from France to the US. While there, I bought a number of wargames (which I really liked). I later moved back to France and began looking for a wargame club in Paris. I found instead a D&D club, and became a fan.
Sunglar: Knowing you are from France how was the gaming scene in France when you began playing? Was the 80’s a golden time for D&D as it was in the US?
Bruce Heard: It was a bit different because none of the games were available in French. All players had to have at least some knowledge of English to be able to use the books. Nonetheless, there was a burgeoning circle of fans that led to the multiplication of local game publishing.
Sunglar: What was Casus Belli, the French gaming magazine you wrote for like?
Bruce Heard: It was a fanzine, all B/W, and really a lot of fun. I was introduced to the publication and, later on, to its staff, through the gaming club in Paris. I later moved to Nice in southern France, and began freelance writing for Cassus Belli at that point. It was my first experience with publishing, all in French of course.
Sunglar: So how did you end up at TSR?
Bruce Heard: The manager at Cassus Belli was a friend of Gary Gygax, whom I met while he was on a business trip in Paris. We got along well enough that he hired me as a French translator for the D&D and Star Frontiers games.
Sunglar: What were your responsibilities when you joined the company and how did they evolve?
Bruce Heard: After working there for two years as a translator, financial problems led TSR to lay off many of the staffers, including me. I was re-hired three months later to handle freelance contracts. This is a function that I retained from 1985 to 1998 when TSR finally ceased operations. Since pretty much nobody on staff at the time was interested in writing products for the Basic/Expert game, everything went freelance. I became therefore the de-facto caretaker for that product line. I authored several titles for that brand, and became its lead creative and product manager.
Sunglar: Where you involved with the Gazetteer series from the beginning?
Bruce Heard: Yes. Gazetteers are my brainchild. I set the original standards for the series, contracted its authors, and updated its scope when I wrote GAZ3 Principalities of Glantri, bringing the format from 64 pages to 96.
Sunglar: How did you decide you wanted to write the Principalities of Glantri? Was that your first choice when you looked at the possibilities?
Bruce Heard: I had some ideas I wanted to try out, and rather than attempt to explain everything to freelance writers, I thought it would work better if I designed one product entirely. I also liked the idea of fleshing out a realm of wizards, introducing elements of one of my favorite modules, Castle Amber. It was my first choice.
Sunglar: Knowing that the broad sketches of the Known World were established in the D&D boxed sets, what other sources of previous information did you take into account when working on the Gazetteer series? Anything you purposefully ignored?
Bruce Heard: None that I can remember.
Sunglar: I’ve read in your blog that since no one was really interested in the BECMI rule set you had a lot of liberty when creating the Gazetteer series. How did success change this? Did it change for better or worse?
Bruce Heard: Success made my job easier because of the reputation I earned as a manager. It was possible to have more of a presence on the market, and consequently more titles each year. With higher sales numbers, I could afford better, more elaborate products as well. I can’t think of any drawbacks aside from a few cases when I was obligated to use inadequate writers.
Sunglar: How did the Voyage of the Princess Ark come about?
Bruce Heard: There was one thing I really disliked, it was the map of Brun in the Masters’ Set, if I remember correctly. It didn’t make any sense to me. I decided to write an article in Dragon Magazine to address this issue. One thing leading to the next, the article turned into an exploratory series. Neither Roger Moore, who was the editor at the time, or I knew that it was going to be so popular. As a result of the success, the series went on for three years. More than one reader stated either that it was the first feature to which they flipped when opening the magazine, or that they only bought the magazine because of it. I was stunned. Fortunately, I really enjoyed writing these pieces.
(As a small aside, I was one of those readers! It was the very first thing I read every month. Now back to the interview…)
Sunglar: You obviously threw the Master Boxed Set map out the window when you started the Voyage of the Princess Ark, any reason beyond that decision, besides your ideas being obviously cooler?
Bruce Heard: The presence of giant empires on a map (Dorfin IV, et al) that were completely out of proportion with the Known World was a problem. Why put something in a rules set with absolutely no written information about it? This didn’t make any sense to me.
Sunglar: Was Haldemar of Haaken based on any character or NPC of yours, or was he created whole cloth for the series? Besides the captain, did you have any favorite character in the series?
Bruce Heard: They were all created whole cloth. I like Talasar and Nyanga, and even more, Myojo Katamura!
Sunglar: Why was Blackmoor attached to Mystara?
Bruce Heard: It was something I was obligated to do. An agreement had been reached between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, resulting in the decision to release Arneson’s Blackmoor series. The problem is that it really didn’t have a world of its own, and I suspect TSR’s management just didn’t want to create a standalone brand. Consequently, the decision was handed down to me that it must be added to Mystara.
Bruce Heard: I always thought the hollow world concept to be very intriguing, something I’d read about when I was a teenager. Since I didn’t see any other product line out there with a hollow world, I decided to seize the opportunity. I worked with a team of in-house designers and editors by then, who contributed general ideas. I organized all that into a cogent plan and handed it to Aaron Allston, whom I contracted to execute the project. Aaron developed these concepts, resulting in the present product.
Sunglar: When did it become known as Mystara? When was the branding of the line changed?
Bruce Heard: When exactly, as a date, I do not recall. I do remember though trying to put together a contest to find a good name for the game world. It didn’t actually have one originally. Nothing really good came out of the contest, so I created the term Mystara (Mystery-Star-Terra). Nobody in the team objected, so it wasn’t long before TSR’s legal staff had the name trademarked.
Sunglar: The switch over from D&D to AD&D, how did that come about? Were you happy with it?
Bruce Heard: The change came at a time when sales were slumping. There were too many products at TSR and out on the market in general (not to mention the effect of video games and CCGs on traditional RPG sales). Corporate interest was mostly about making D&D a mass-market brand. All this put Mystara and the BECMI rules system in a bad position. Rather than facing a slow death, it seemed like a better solution to transit the brand to AD&D where it might enjoy a longer life. In retrospect, I’m not sure it really made a big difference. Did I like it? No. I would have preferred keeping the original series going.
Sunglar: Do you think the supplements with other media, such as CDs, enhance or deter from the supplements themselves? Did they meet your expectations?
Bruce Heard: I didn’t think they really helped. If you had a choice between a new supplement and an audio accessory, which would you prefer? Most people seem to want the traditional accessory, especially in view of the cost of CDs and how little they really offer.
Sunglar: What about Red Steel I remember it started in the articles in Dragon Magazine if I’m not mistaken? Where you happy with the products that came out?
Bruce Heard: Not entirely. Some changes were made that I just didn’t agree with or like. Other than these little hiccups, it was nice to see all that stuff from the Princess Ark series neatly compiled.
Sunglar: Did you have anything to do with the novels that were published for Mystara?
Bruce Heard: I had nothing to do with them.
Sunglar: What was the last Mystara product you had a hand in?
Bruce Heard: I think it must have been the last almanac. Not sure.
Sunglar: Besides your work for D&D and TSR, did you work in other games or companies in the RPG industry?
Bruce Heard: No.
Sunglar: I know this may be a touchy subject, but how was working for TSR during those last years. One hears stories, but what was your perspective from within?
Bruce Heard: From where I stood, there was nothing wrong. I liked being at TSR and everyone there was pretty much family as far as I was concerned. There was tension because we knew TSR was in trouble financially. But this did not affect how we all worked and got along. The problem did not come from the creative staff. It originated with strategic decisions that put TSR in a financial situation from which it could not recover.
Sunglar: After TSR what did you do?
Bruce Heard: My wife at the time wasn’t willing to give up her job so we could move to Seattle. I worked with various other companies that weren’t related to the gaming industry, by necessity more than personal choice. It’s not what I wanted or enjoyed. This is why I’ve returned to the gaming field.
Sunglar: Did your other jobs influence your gaming and your writing in any way?
Bruce Heard: Yes and no. When I left TSR, I needed a break from the creative world. It just wasn’t the same. I also had to concentrate on what I needed to do anyway. These jobs took most of time and energy, which prevented any meaningful involvement in the creative field.
Sunglar: What do you think of the OSR movement?
Bruce Heard: I love it! It feels like the good old times, and it is part of the reason why I got back into gaming—and therefore, into writing for Mystara.
Sunglar: What are you currently working on? What are you writing about in your blog Bruce Heard, about D&D and new stories?
Bruce Heard: I’ve been writing novels with my partner, Janet Deaver-Pack. So far, we’ve had no luck getting a publisher, so I’m taking necessary steps toward eventual electronic publishing, doing away with the need for agents and traditional publishers.
Sunglar: I know some people think Mystara is too high fantasy, its cultures a strange mix of real world equivalents, not to mention the crazy geography, while others (like the interviewer who will not hide his love for the world), think that is part of the charm, of what makes it unique. Why do you think Mystara lives on despite not being supported by the publisher for so long?
Bruce Heard: If people really like something, it doesn’t matter whether it is “supported” by a publisher. The real fans of the game simply got together and shared their interests regardless of anything else happening in the industry. Remarkably, it’s been going on for 15 years. This is a major driving force behind Mystara’s survival.
Sunglar: What do you think the future has in store for Mystara?
Bruce Heard: I can’t really answer this question, because there are many factors involved. At worst, it’s a continued parallel existence through its enduring fandom. At best, perhaps new products either from WotC or through some arrangement with this game publisher. There’s no telling now which way things may go.
Sunglar: What about for Bruce Heard? Any new project we should be looking forward to?
Bruce Heard: My involvement with Mystara is of course limited to the fact WotC owns copyrights for Mystara’s contents and the Princess Ark. Aside from Mystara, there are a few things possible. Just recently I delivered a manuscript to the World Building Academy. The title of the project says it all: “How to Build a Gazetteer.” Other freelance work, unrelated to D&D, is also a definite possibility.
Sunglar: What games are you currently playing?
Bruce Heard: AD&D 1st Edition mostly. I got interested in Wings of War since last Gen Con, but I really haven’t had enough time to push into this. Otherwise, the occasional boardgames make themselves available at the Lake Geneva game store.
Sunglar: And last but not least, and to sort of round this up, I don’t know if you keep up with this, but how has the gaming scene changed in France since you started playing to the present?
Bruce Heard: I haven’t been involved with the gaming field in France for a long time. Much of the OSR “movement” is taking place there as well. I noticed there are more web sites and blogs dealing with roleplaying games and, of course, Mystara as well. Much more common now are historical re-enactions that really leave me wishing I could be there!
Sunglar: Oh and one last bonus question, I read you speak Spanish, enough to do this interview over in that language? Just kidding!
Bruce Heard: No es posible. Lo hablo, pero solo un poquito. E aprendido el español más de treinta años en la escuela en Francia!
And that answer in Spanish, while not perfect, is perfectly understandable, kudos!
With that I think we can consider this interview finished… Thank you very much Bruce for your availability and kindness at answering these questions, you are a true gentleman.
Dear reader if you want to know more about Bruce Heard I invite you to visit his blog, aptly titled About Bruce Heard, D&D and new stories, whether you are an old fan or are just discovering his work it is worth checking it out. You can follow him on Twitter as @Ambreville. There are also the D&D BECMI Facebook Group and the Mystara Reborn FB Group and World of Mystara G+ Community.
Thanks for reading, and to all of you, Happy Holidays!